written by Kelley Moen, photographed by Marcus Kauffman
“Our power went out at about 9pm, but that’s common here… it was no big deal,” recalled Bill Schaefers of the September 7, 2020 evening at his home on Oregon’s upper McKenzie River. “I should’ve listened to my daughter,” he said. Unlike Bill, his 20-year old daughter followed the Blue River Bulletin Board Facebook page that evening, and she had warned her parents about the local concern and conversation on social media about smoke and high winds in the forested area. The wildfire approaching that night would become a shared experience for people- both a nightmare and a beacon of hope- a reminder that despite the times, we are most certainly connected.
The wildfire approaching that night would become a reminder that despite the times, we are most certainly connected.
The upper McKenzie River is one of the most magical places on earth.
The McKenzie River is a 90-mile tributary of the Willamette River in western Oregon. It drains part of the Cascade Range east of Eugene and flows westward into the southernmost end of the Willamette. In the Willamette National Forest, the upper reach of the McKenzie River, above the micro town called McKenzie Bridge, feels a little like Tolkein’s hobbit home in the Shire.
Dense spirals of emerald green ferns blanket the forest floor, with towering mature cedars and Douglas firs shading the undergrowth in grizzled and mossy limbs. The river charges through this jungly terrain, cutting a fierce path through a lava rockbed. According to many anglers, the upper McKenzie River is one of the most magical places on earth.
Labor Day weekend brought smoke into the McKenzie area from Oregon’s Lionshead, Beachie Creek and Riverside fires in the north. Even with high winds and heavy smoke, people knew those fires were far enough away and didn’t pose an immediate risk for residents like Bill.
But at 12:30am that Monday night, he received the dreaded phone call. Steve Schaefers, a legendary local river guide and one of Bill’s three brothers who also lived on the McKenzie, woke him with an alert that the area was on level 2 evacuation from a new, local fire. Steve would head downriver asap to brother Bill’s home to escape the heavy smoke.
By 6am, the Schaefers brothers Bill, Steve, Dave and Mike had been evacuated three times, leapfrogging downriver between three different homesite locations along a 30-mile stretch of the McKenzie River in what would become known as the Holiday Farm Fire, or the McKenzie Fire.
The McKenzie Fire began on September 7, 2020 at 8:20pm and burned 173,094 acres along the Willamette National Forest’s upper McKenzie River. The communities of Vida, Blue River, Mohawk, McKenzie Bridge, Leaburg and Waterville were all evacuated.
Slide show by Marcus Kauffman
“I woke up at about 4:15am to white, blue and red strobe lights,” recalls David Jensen, who has had a home on the McKenzie River for four decades. As soon as he flipped on his kitchen lights early that morning, powered by a generator, the fire fighters patrolling outside his home came right up to him. “You’ve got four minutes. You’ve got to go!”
In that moment, knowing you have just minutes to get out, what goes through your mind? A collection spanning four decades of family life as an angler on the McKenzie..fly rods, reels, lines, drift boats…a home, a barn…photos…memories.
“I have my wife, my dog and my favorite fishing riffle is still out there on the McKenzie River.” -David Jensen
Jensen said he told his wife to get her keys and wallet, nothing else, and get in the car. Later, his friends told him that he should’ve taken the photos on the walls and other memories that would be lost. But no, he said afterward. His memories would never be lost.
After the fire burnt his entire house and decimated the barn, all his fishing gear, a never-been-fished E.C. Powell bamboo rod and even his most special 1989 wood drift boat, Jensen said he really had all he needed. “I have my wife, my dog and my favorite fishing riffle is still out there on the McKenzie River,” he said.
The morning after the fire began, burning fast and moving west in high winds, South Willamette Watershed District Fish Biologist Jeff Ziller received the emergency message that Leaburg Dam had pulled all three gates. It would be drained in order to avoid any catastrophic debris pileup in the case that the dam’s power was lost.
“We literally had minutes to make a decision,” said Ziller. “Do we act quickly and release the 1.2 million fish at the hatchery, or do we let them die?” The choice was made to save the fish. So with an o.k. from the National Forest Service, and with the Oregon State Police escorting them, Ziller and 6 others set out to rescue the trapped fish.
“It was 10am, but almost pitch black because of the smoke.” -Jeff Ziller, fish biologist
The state police lit the way with strobe lights through dense smoke, and the work began. 100 to 150 salmon were trapped in a fish ladder, and 700 adult salmon, plus juveniles, would quickly be stranded in a pond created by the draining Leaburg Dam. In all, Ziller said, the outcome was tremendous.
700 thousand Spring Chinook Salmon, 150 to 200 thousand steelhead and 12 to 15 thousand catchable-size trout and fingerlings were released into the river, according to Ziller’s count. “In all my years, that was a new one!” Ziller said, admitting that the harrowing tale was unique and had been captured in a local story.
Even now, nearly three weeks since the fire began, there remains limited access to large stretches of the river itself.
“I actually haven’t seen the area of concern yet,” said Ziller. “Gate Creek is one of the few Spring Chinook salmon spawning grounds. We will probably have some damage there, and we will see what it looks like in the next few weeks.”
The problem now is getting access to those areas on the McKenzie River, said Chris Daughters, owner of The Caddis Fly and longtime McKenzie River guide. “The upper McKenzie is unique. Although it’s just part of the river and there are many other stretches to fish, the upper McKenzie is the iconic part.”
Already hit by Covid restrictions this year, guides and outfitters have experienced cancellations throughout the summer and fall seasons like most across the world. The smoke from wildfires all along the west coast since late summer has added to problems for the fishing industry in the Pacific Northwest. Now, anglers who want to fish the upper McKenzie will be limited by campground and boat launch closures as well.
Shuttle driver and homeowner Carollyn Broom said she was notified of the evacuation late that Monday night, which she says went from a level 1 to a level 3 in 45 minutes. “I grabbed my cats, my keys and my shuttle book.” She still hasn’t been back to see the damage, but says that the lower McKenzie River river is open and she will continue her shuttle service in areas she can access by car.
“I grabbed my cats, my keys and my shuttle book.” -Carollyn Broom, Broom Shuttle
Oregon Route 126 follows the river and provides the only main access road for anglers living in the bigger towns near Eugene on the west side and near Bend on the east side. The highway is currently closed, with pilot cars directing scheduled traffic through the barrage of downed trees, powerlines and wildfire debris. Working endless hours, the highway crews say that the road could be dangerous for travelers in the months ahead.
Brothers JP Mischkot and Ted Mischkot also lost homes in the McKenzie Fire. Bought by their parents in 1985, one cabin and its legacy was what JP calls his ‘fly fishing and oarsman training grounds’. “If you can row a boat on the upper McKenzie, you can row a boat anywhere,” he said. The upper river is pocketed with numerous technical rapids that make it both challenging and appealing to anglers who know about it.
“I don’t have the words to convey my emotions about seeing this environment ripped apart,” said JP. The family history and shared memories center on the McKenzie cabin that was lost to the fire. The cabin was for JP an important escape from Covid. Yet, despite the destruction and loss, he has faith that the McKenzie River fishery- and community- will continue to thrive.
Slide Show Photography by Ted Mischkot
Marcus Kauffman, Public Information Officer for the Oregon Department of Forestry, documented the fire team’s hard work on the Holiday Farm Fire (McKenzie Fire). “As part of the fire team,” said Kauffman, “my job is to give the community and media relevant, timely and accurate information as the “face of the fire”. Daily updates, photos, videos and community meetings were virtually broadcast and shared via the Holiday Farm
Fire Facebook site, YouTube and inciweb. Inciweb is the interagency all-risk incident information management system that provides a single source of incident related information and a standardized reporting tool for the public affairs community. Kauffman said they worked hard to connect and communicate with people in Lane County during the firefighters’ response, evacuation, logistics and updates on the McKenzie Fire.
The unknown. The chaos. The emergency response. The network of communication. The loss. The revival.
All are repercussions for a mountain community caught in the chaotic throes of a wildfire. ‘Hope’ is the common thread in all these various accounts. Hope seems appropriate , as faith in the river’s recovery is actually supported by science.
“The immediate injury to the fish population is probably minimal,” said fish biologist Jeff Ziller. In fact, he said the McKenzie fishery may actually see an increase in productivity, with less dense forest coverage and more sunlight reaching the water. More solar energy input, continued low water temperatures and added nitrogen from wildfire ash will likely contribute to higher insect productivity- which in turn may initially benefit fish in the McKenzie River.
“Despite the fire, the heart of the river was still flowing and Chinook salmon were spawning, just a week after the fire began.” -Marcus Kauffman, Oregon Department of Forestry
Kauffman said he experienced a certain ray of hope, as well, when he was allowed to photograph a section of the river near the small town of Finn Rock. “With help from the McKenzie River Trust, I was able to get down and see Chinook salmon spawning there, just a week after the fire began. It was an iconic moment,” he said, “because despite the fire, the heart of the river was still flowing and the fish were doing well.”
Anglers can contribute to a river’s recovery from wildfire through simple choices. After wildfires move through and thin the forest, there will be more open areas along the banks, with much easier access to fish spawning habitat. “Be careful in those new open areas, in the fine gravel and the obvious spawning grounds,” said Ziller. “Watch out for the reds.” Just like people may rebuild their homes taken by wildfire, fish will be rebuilding and adjusting, too.
The Pacific Northwest has withstood centuries of devastation and regrowth patterns from fire. It’s part of the natural history and ecology of the region. Read here to learn more. And for us anglers who treasure our rivers, who value these natural places and who actually live near and build homes beside and within them, we have to realize the risks and the responsibility of that choice.
“If we choose to live in beautiful areas,” said David Jensen of his many years living on the McKenzie River, “we need to be sober about the risks. Things like this can happen.”
“If we choose to live in beautiful areas, we need to be sober about the risks. Things like this can happen.” -David Jensen
The season’s wildfires that have raged across the western United States make it clear that, like the trees in a forest and the rivers in a watershed are interconnected, a single event connects us all. A wildfire rages through forest and river. A fire team takes swift action with arduous work. A homeowner loses his decades’ old retreat. A local guide struggles for work without tourism. A shuttle driver is prohibited from the debris-scattered highway. An angler is denied access with roadway and launch closures. A biologist rushes to save fish from a hatchery. Citizens of nearby towns breathe the smoke, ingesting the forest and the river itself.
One rooted event with many tendrils, a wildfire bonds us.
As we endure the countless challenges of this era, let the wildfires be one reminder that while social distancing from each other for the moment in theory, we are most tangibly connected to each other for the long run in reality.
Kelley Moen is co-producer and editor of Catch Magazine, and she has been a writer since she could sign her name. After earning undergraduate degrees in anthropology, the French language and education at Montana State University in Bozeman, she spent a few years working, fishing and traveling…while honing her wordsmithing skills in the real world. In 2006, she completed a Master’s Degree in Journalism at the University of Montana and helped create Catch Magazine in 2008. Today she lives and works in Central Oregon with her husband and business partner, Todd Moen, and aims to spend frequent, good times outdoors with their two children.
*For more information about the McKenzie Fire, check out these links:
McKenzie River Trust
Holiday Farm Fire Facebook
The Caddis Fly Angling Shop